Historic reports on the treatment of pernicious anemia with folic acid suggest that high-level folic acid fortification delays the diagnosis of or exacerbates the effects of vitamin B-12 deficiency, which affects many seniors. This idea is controversial, however, because observational data are few and inconclusive. Furthermore, experimental investigation is unethical.
We examined the relations between serum folate and vitamin B-12 status relative to anemia, macrocytosis, and cognitive impairment (ie, Digit Symbol-Coding score <34) in senior participants in the 1999–2002 US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
The subjects had normal serum creatinine concentrations and reported no history of stroke, alcoholism, recent anemia therapy, or diseases of the liver, thyroid, or coronary arteries (n = 1459). We defined low vitamin B-12 status as a serum vitamin B-12 concentration <148 pmol/L or a serum methylmalonic acid concentration >210 nmol/L—the maximum of the reference range for serum vitamin B-12–replete participants with normal creatinine.
After control for demographic characteristics, cancer, smoking, alcohol intake, serum ferritin, and serum creatinine, low versus normal vitamin B-12 status was associated with anemia [odds ratio (OR): 2.7; 95% CI: 1.7, 4.2], macrocytosis (OR: 1.8; 95% CI: 1.01, 3.3), and cognitive impairment (OR: 2.5; 95% CI: 1.6, 3.8). In the group with a low vitamin B-12 status, serum folate ≤59 nmol/L (80th percentile), as opposed to ≤59 nmol/L, was associated with anemia (OR: 3.1; 95% CI: 1.5, 6.6) and cognitive impairment (OR: 2.6; 95% CI: 1.1, 6.1). In the normal vitamin B-12 group, ORs relating high versus normal serum folate to these outcomes were <1.0 (Pinteraction <0.05), but significantly <1.0 only for cognitive impairment (0.4; 95% CI: 0.2, 0.9).
In seniors with low vitamin B-12 status, high serum folate was associated with anemia and cognitive impairment. When vitamin B-12 status was normal, however, high serum folate was associated with protection against cognitive impairment.